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TO 1999

Pleasure Principle

Today's Houses Reflect Our Innermost Psychology and Allow Us to Explore the Unknown. And Where Better to Experiment Than Los Angeles?

May 16, 1999|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic. His last article for the magazine was a profile of Frank Gehry

The cave. The primitive hut. The house as machine. Mankind has been on a frustrating quest for the ideal shelter for millennia. But it was in the 20th century that the house first became a place of radical experimentation, and that willingness to tinker with the way we live remains a central tenet of our era.

At the beginning of the modern age, man's most essential need, to locate a place for warmth and shelter, was joined by a new desire: to obliterate the past and shape a new way of life--to build Utopia. For the Modernist architects who dominated the first half of the century, architecture was a tool that could not only mirror social structures but transform them. The lightness of the new industrial materials--steel, glass and concrete--would allow architects to break apart the dark, stuffy living spaces of the medieval city. Life would fill up with light, air and nature. The Modernists believed the house would become a therapeutic instrument--one that would not only make life more livable, but that would heal us both physically and psychologically.

That faith produced some of the world's most exquisite architectural works. The urban metropolis--Chicago, Paris and Berlin--became the laboratory for new forms of shelter, from mass housing to bourgeois villas. But it was Los Angeles that perhaps best summed up the ethos of freedom and experimentation that defined the modern single-family house. Here, amid the openness of the desert landscape, fostered by the cult of the individual, architects were free to experiment with an abandon that was highly personal.

Nonetheless, by the '50s, the Modernist revolution was beginning to sputter. By the '70s, it had collapsed altogether. Today, even the most radical contemporary architects shy away from polemical arguments and the writing of manifestos. There seem to be no more universal answers. But if the house continues to be a central place of architectural experimentation, architects now focus on the little details of human existence--the inner psychology of the client, the social structure of the family. "It is no longer possible today to deal with the general first," says the visionary Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. "Right now, one can only proceed with the hyper-specific. You start at the other end."

The high-end, architect-designed house today increasingly reflects our deepest psychological impulses, both good and bad--how we live, who we are, our fantasies and desires. It has become a mirror of our vanity, one that reveals our celebrity-obsessed culture's craving to put life constantly on display, and a place for the exploration of a more open, democratic way of life, no longer bound by conventional norms. Before Utopia, inner peace.

As the French critic Jean-Louis Cohen puts it: "The hedonistic component has become very important. It is about restoring a sense of pleasure to architecture--physical pleasure, visual pleasure. Modern architecture was about teaching lessons through the home. Now there is more of an acceptance that the house is a place to be enjoyed."


Let's slip back for a moment into the mind of the early Modernist. The movement began as a response to the decaying world of the 19th century bourgeoisie. To the early Modernists, it was a world of clutter and inefficiency. Its inhabitants lived in labyrinthine houses with cramped little rooms decorated with overwrought ornamentation. Thick load-bearing walls, small cut-out windows, formal symmetrical facades--these elements all served to obscure the realities of life inside. They symbolized disease and darkness, a culture out of touch with the ethos of the new machine age.

By the turn of the century, that world was already under attack. The architects of the Arts and Crafts movement began the work of breaking open the dark little rooms. But it was Frank Lloyd Wright, as a young, precocious architect working in the sedate suburbs of Chicago, who fused these ideas into a new vision of domestic life.

"The story starts with the emergence of the middle class in America," Cohen says. "There you begin to have model homes in women's magazines. It is the beginning of the reorganization of the kitchen. That is really when domestic culture is structured, and it crystalized in Wright's work."

Wright's Robie House, completed in 1909, was the perfect model of that vision. Set in a stuffy residential enclave of Chicago, its composition of long horizontal planes and large corner windows draws the eye out toward the landscape, breaking apart the boundaries between inside and out. Space flows freely between rooms. The familiar walls--once simple barriers with doors punched through them--become a series of overlapping planes that allow for a remarkable freedom of movement, all anchored around the symbolic hearth of the fireplace. To Wright, these projects symbolized both a new relationship between man and the landscape and the liberation of the family from the oppressive social conventions of Middle America.

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